The church of the western world is largely in decline. While the statistics vary, any casual observer can see that, regardless of church attendance numbers, the church is going out of style fast. Her influence in the political and cultural sphere have dwindled to almost nonexistence, her presence in education has been severely cut short, and her visibility in the public square has decreased significantly. The overwhelming attitude of the western nations towards Christianity seems to be twofold.
“Oh my gosh, that is SO last century.”
“Civilization tried Christianity and it didn’t work.”
The first attitude is just the natural reaction of our rabidly progress oriented culture. We want bigger, we want better, we want new and improved. Progress is on the march, and Christianity is last week’s news, so get out of the way. The same things happens to other philosophical, cultural and political ideologies all the time.
The second attitude, however, is a direct challenge to the efficacy of the church. Christianity ruled the western world, directly or indirectly, for hundreds of years, but in many people’s eyes, failed to live up to its promises of peace on earth, goodwill toward men and all that jazz. Been there, tried that, no thanks. However, I would like to contest that the Christianity that civilization mostly experienced has been a watered down or false version of the faith it claims to be. For much of western history the majority Christian church has not been the true Christian church. This is not to say that true Christianity was completely absent, nor that the majority church was completely devoid of true Christianity, but that often the version of Christianity we see in history was not true Christianity.
So, here are some guidelines for figuring out if the Christianity you’re rejecting is true Christianity, or just a diluted/deluded (hee hee) fake.
I like to call the book of 1 John a field guide to recognizing a true Christian. John writes it to a church that is plagued by a false form of Christianity called Gnosticism that was trying to undermine orthodox Christian teachings and practices. He has multiple stated purposes in writing the book, but their culmination is basically to affirm those who are truly in Christ and to denounce those that are not. The whole book is a series of contrasts between truth and falsehood, light and darkness, love and lovelessness, Christ and the antichrist. John is prolific in his use of creative imagery, illustrations and words pictures to make his points, but the high point of His writing is in 3:23-24, where all of His field notes are condensed into two verses.
So, according to the apostle John, here’s how to identify a true Christian
“By this we shall know that we are of the truth…”
1. Belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (verse 23)
This one is pretty straightforward, but it is the hardest to determine definitely as an outside observer since a belief is primarily internal. However, when push comes to shove, this belief should be verbally professed and really, if you do believe that God loves you enough to personally come to earth in the person of His Son and die for Your sins, and that He is powerful enough to raise Himself from the dead, that kind of changes how you look at and live your life in a noticeable way.
2. Love for one another (verse 23)
John really hammers this one throughout the entire book of 1 John. Basically, if a person is not loving, they are not a Christian. That may be kind of an extreme statement, but John doesn’t leave a whole lot of wiggle room on this. Does this mean that all Christians love perfectly all the time? No. But it does mean that their main characteristic in interacting with people is love. As John says, “Anyone who does not love, does not know God.” If someone is not loving, they are not a Christian. Period.
3. Obedience to Christ’s teaching and commandments (verse 24)
Again, this is a big theme in John and also one he doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for. “Whoever says, ‘I know him’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar…” John asserts in 2:4. Because if you claim the name of Christ, if you claim to belong to Him, doesn’t it make sense that you would do what He says? If someone is not obeying Christ’s commands, that person is not a Christian. Again, all of us make mistakes, all of us mess up, but there is still a big difference between someone who is living their life according to their own rules, and someone who lives their life in recognition of a higher authority to whom they are submitted and accountable.
4. Assurance and presence of the Spirit of God in their life (verse 24)
This one can also be kind of hard to measure from the outside, but the other writings of the apostles do help give us some helpful pointers. One of the main passages for this is Galatians 5:16-24 where Paul also draws some pretty stark contrasts between those who walk according to “the flesh” (their natural being) and who walk according to the Spirit. He lists several “fruits” of the spirit including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. I appreciate his imagery of “fruit” here, because these virtues are not instantaneous, but are things that grow and develop over time. If you know someone who claims to be a Christian and yet exhibits few if any of these and doesn’t show any signs of developing them, that might raise a red flag.
5. Christ Centered Life
This final attribute of a true Christian is more implicit than explicit in 1 John 3:23-24. It is based on the observation that all of the four characteristics listed above are centered on Christ. We believe IN CHRIST. We love just as CHRIST commanded us. We keep CHRIST’S commandments. We have the presence of the Spirit that CHRIST gave us. Basically, all of the four things listed above begin and end with Christ. A person can work hard to do all the right things, but do it only for their only glory and benefit. That is not true Christianity. The practice of true Christianity is centered on a love for, obedience to and fellowship with Jesus Christ.
So, to sum up, usually when people hate the Christianity of the past, the Christianity of the present, or even specific Christians in their lives, they are often hating a watered down mutation of Christianity, and not the true thing itself.
“Civilization tried Christianity and it didn’t work.”
Civilization tried a version of Christianity that, as it rose in power and influence, was often watered down or entirely false. Just like a watered down medication, the label on the bottle may claim it has power to cure, but the substance inside is not real enough to fulfill the promises it makes.
So, if you want to hate Christianity and Christians, use the guidelines above to make sure you hate the right ones. You may just find that the thing you hate, is not Christianity at all, but a false version of it.
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